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In the spring of 1969, several months before Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11, an American nightclub singer and radio personality named Lucia Pamela built herself a rocket ship, fastened her seat belt, said a quick prayer and blasted into outer space.
The first stop of Pamela's fantastical voyage was the moon. She landed in a place called Moontown, inhabited by moon people who dressed like cowboys. They welcomed her warmly and invited her to an Eskimo wedding. To show her appreciation, Pamela did what came naturally: She picked up her accordion and sang.
Moontown is a place to go.
Whether it's hot or whether it's cold,
The weather on the moon is the best, I'm told.
On the highways and byways and valleys, it's true,
There's no finer people than the moon people to you!
With the help of her new lunar friends, Pamela made a recording of "Moontown" and a dozen other numbers. She played fifteen instruments, including the piano, clarinet, drums, cymbals and what sounds like a theremin. The sound quality was poor, and Pamela's voice occasionally wavered offkey. "The air is different up there, you know," she later explained. Still, the old pro belted out her songs with gusto. It had been 60 years since her stage debut in her hometown of St. Louis, and there wasn't much that could faze her.
After returning to Earth, Pamela released her lunar recordings on Gulfstream Records, a small label in Hollywood, Florida. She called the album Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela. It sold well enough to warrant a re-pressing in 1970. Then it fell into obscurity until 1992, when a New Jersey DJ named Irwin Chusid recognized it as an unheralded classic and included a chapter on Pamela in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music.
It's difficult to describe Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela, though many earthbound music critics have tried. "Imagine an LP of a peyote-soaked klezmer band, recorded with Joe Meek passed out at the console, wavering on your turntable between 31 and 35 rpm," wrote Chusid.
It has "the feel of a warped bebop children's album," Neil Strauss ventured in the New York Times. R. J. Smith wrote in Los Angeles magazine that it sounded "like a Dixieland band carrying boxes of silverware stumbling down a staircase."
At first, listening to the album is a painful experience. Yet there's something endearing about Pamela's raspy voice, her swingy piano-playing and her absolute conviction that she is, indeed, on the moon. "Ooooh, I see elves!" she exclaims impatiently at the beginning of the song "Walking on the Moon." "Let's take a walk on the moon! Come on! Come on! Come oooonn!"
"Her voice sounded like a woman in her second, third or fourth childhood," Chusid observes.
The tune is catchy. After a few choruses, it's difficult not to sing along.
As I was walking on the moon,
I met a little cow-ow-ow,
And this is what she said to me:
Da-da da-da-da-da da-da,
moo-moo-moo-moo moo-moo moo-moo-moo-moo!!!!
And that's what she said to me!
"I started playing her on the radio," Chusid remembers in a recent interview. "People loved her. There's a lack of inhibition and joie de vivre. It's very sincere and genuine. You don't get the impression that she's trying to sound shocking and avant-garde. There's a sense of adventure."
Chusid and Erik Lindgren re-released a CD version of Into Outer Space on Lindgren's label Arf! Arf! Records out of Middleborough, Massachusetts. A new generation discovered Pamela, and though the album never sold more than 2,000 copies, it became a cult classic.
In the 1970s Pamela drew and released a coloring book intended to be a companion to the album. In addition to the people of Moontown, it includes pictures of the French-speaking residents of neighboring Nutland Village — Messieurs Walnut, Filbert and Cashew — and a man in a dog costume smoking a cigarette. She announced an international coloring contest open to all. "Children aren't the only people who like to color books," she insisted. (Because the contest had no deadline, a winner was never declared. Some suspect Pamela was waiting for entries from as-yet undiscovered parts of the galaxy.)
The British band Stereolab wrote a song about Pamela called "International Colouring Contest." It appears on their 1994 album Mars Audiac Quintet. Vocalist Laetitia Sadier writes in a recent e-mail: "There was something radically optimistic about her, that imagination was strongest of all and would conquer all, which was really inspiring."
A Belgian artist and filmmaker named Danielle Lemaire became so fascinated by Pamela's work and delightfully eccentric spirit that she traveled to Los Angeles in 1998 and spent several days with the singer collecting footage for a documentary about her life.
She later visited the site of Pamela's childhood home on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis but found that it had been demolished. Though Lemaire finally finished her film last year, she hasn't been able to release it because of difficulties getting the rights to use Pamela's work.
Those rights are owned by the Rosenbloom family, which also owns the St. Louis Rams. The late matriarch, Georgia Frontiere, in another odd twist to the legend, was Pamela's daughter.